by Maryli Tiemann

It’s rare to be part of something important. 

Right now a premiere production is blossoming at The Heartwood Regional Theater in Newcastle. The Legend of Jim Cullen, written and directed by the company’s Artistic Director, Griff Braley, offers each of us a chance to witness brilliant creativity in progress.

Braley has held the Cullen kernel for over 40 years: “One rainy Sunday afternoon when I was about nine, my grandmother told me the story of Jim Cullen and the only lynching in Maine – the only hanging without trial within New England.” Its allure was all the greater, because part of it took place on the corner of  Griff’s family farm.  His great great grandfather was involved in the events, and what a story it is. It’s intriguing in its telling, and knowing the framework enhances its unfolding.

It all takes place in and around Mapleton, Maine, in 1873, nine years after the Civil War. The land which comes to be Aroostook County had been home to the Micmacs and then homesteaded by Swedes, Brits, French and Irish to farm potatoes and lumber the vast woods, though there were no winter roads and its border with Canada was invisible. 

As witness to scenes from Jim Cullen’s youth and the basic pieces and characters surrounding his fate, we watch an unfolding of raw human emotions. Not just Jim’s emotions. We see and understand the reactions of his family and of caring folks, who knew him growing up, worked with him, lived by him: his community.

In 1873, Mapleton was on the verge of incorporation, which meant the state would offer funds to build roads – a mile a year – their vital means to commerce and prosperity. Settlers desperately had to work because their lives depended on it. They were in the midst of a depression, in harsh climate, in northern Maine, in its immigrant infancy, when there were little provisions for sustainability and even fewer for the law. 

Understandably, after the lynching the community would be shamed into silence by their complicity in the shocking facts.  Braley’s grandmother’s story truly is the stuff of legend. It has taken researchers like Dena Winslow, whose PhD dissertation in 2005 at Presque Isle, pieces together the oral stories with precious documentation, like marriage licenses.

And Dena Winslow was in the audience opening night. This brings us back to that rare moment of being a part of something important. 

This play is Maine history unfolding. This is the creative process of a theatrical community. This is a new audience of Mainers witnessing, questioning how the actions of those before us have shaped who we are. Being among those witnessing is an honor. 

Over the years Griff Braley took his grandmother’s story, wove part of it into a one act play, then a two act with four or five versions of the story. Then he added 12 original songs based on folk tunes of the period and region. He chose the actual historical figure of Luther Bateman, a journalist for the Lewiston Sun Journal, as a narrator. 

Braley said he “wanted to let go of the spectacle and ask the harder questions.” He succeeds. We get to know these townsfolk and how they worshipped, gossiped and argued. And as their story unfolds, we still wonder how they could let such brutality occur midst their homes. 

These actors are gifted, skilled and passionate: every single one of them. Braley gathered a cast who create the folks they portray, so the audience experiences being within the actual community.

Also, these original songs are played by multi-talented musicians, sung brilliantly by the cast, and appropriately in keeping with the movement of the story and each scene.

Have you been to Aroostook County? Then you know the scenery is breathtaking. So are our views of projections of the Aroostook hills alive with foliage or expanding across northern horizons. Letitia Munson’s technical artistry adds practical grounding and visual inspiration to each scene.

Our opening night audience saw the whole picture, and it was brilliant. Yet it was also too long, which is a common concern for any premiere production – and why Braley and cast are making changes this very week, before the second weekend run. And what to cut and how to reweave the story is the stuff of premieres. When a show “comes to Broadway,” it does so with abundant editing: numbers cut and new bits added to replace longer ones. Where was there confusion? Where in the process of creating did the unsaid become understood so deeply that those in the process became unaware of the naïveté of the audiences to come?

Any tailor or seamstress can share the pain of “ripping out stitches.” It must be exponentially excruciating to eliminate work created as an ensemble:   Whose lines? What action? Which songs? What’s the essence of what we are doing for the audience to feel what we do?

That’s why I’m going to see it again. I’m eager to see what they’re performing now and encourage you to see The Legend of Jim Cullen at the Heartwood. It’s rare to part of something this well done, this important.


Performances continue in the Parker B. Poe Theater at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle, on July 26 & 27, Aug 1-3 at 7:30pm.  One matinee performance (filling up quickly) will be offered on Sunday, July 28th at 3pm.  Tickets are $20 adults / $12 students.  Reservations strongly recommended at boxoffice@heartwoodtheater.org OR 207.563.1373.   Video trailer, story line and general info at www.heartwoodtheater.org


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